Nov 21, 2016

Ban on new places of worship upheld in Montreal's Outremont borough

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish population feels targeted by bylaw, to consider court challenge

By Benjamin Shingler, CBC News

Nov 20, 2016

A bylaw prohibiting new places of worship on one of Outremont's main streets has been upheld.

Residents voted Sunday in a referendum whether to overturn the ban on Bernard Avenue, a tree-lined strip dotted with restaurants, cafés and residential buildings.

A total of 1,561 residents voted in favour of upholding the controversial bylaw, while 1,202 voted against it.

The bylaw, introduced last year, forbids new temples of worship of any denomination from opening on the street. But the borough's sizable and fast-growing Ultra-Orthodox population feels targeted.

"It's very disappointing," said Abraham Ekstein, a leader in the Hasidic community.

Ekstein believes the results will further divide the community of Outremont, adding that he is prepared to take the issue before the courts.

"Bernard was the last zone where we could build synagogues and this ends it," said Ekstein. "So I said that all the time during the campaign in a constitutional democracy the right of the majority is not to discriminate against the minority."

"We will for sure use the rights of the constitution, we will for sure go to court."

Heated debate

Referendums on municipal bylaws don't usually attract much attention. However, the vote has received intense media coverage, and emerged as the latest flashpoint in the province's continued debate over religious accommodation.

Citizen groups on both sides had both produced flyers to make their case and turnout in advance polls last weekend was high. 

The bylaw was introduced in 2015, not long after the borough approved a permit for a synagogue on Bernard. 

Not long after, the borough decided to pass a law banning all new places of worship on two key arteries, Bernard Avenue and Laurier Avenue, with the aim of creating "winning conditions" for local businesses.

The Laurier ban wasn't contested and the other major street, Van Horne Avenue, has had a similar ban since the late 1990s.

A vote in favour of the Bernard ban would therefore effectively block any new synagogues in the borough.

The business case

Several merchants have come out in favour of the ban, arguing another place of religious worship would hurt business.

Francine Brulée, co-owner of the Les Enfants Terribles, a high-end bistro on Bernard, said many people in the Hasidic community don't frequent her restaurant or other businesses in the area.

"They do their own things and that's OK," she said. "But if there's more and more and more, the other stores and the other restaurants will suffer, I think."

However, Mindy Pollak, the first and only Hasidic Jew to be elected to city council, said the pro-business argument "just doesn't hold water."

She pointed to Parc Avenue, located just outside the Outremont borough boundary, where synagogues recently opened up on a "block that was completely abandoned and neglected before. So obviously, not bad for commercial use."

Long history in Outremont

This isn't the first time Outremont, which is home to a large and wealthy francophone population, has been the site of conflict with the Hasidic community.

In the past, the community has engaged in battles with Outremont council over the use of charter buses in residential streets and the placement of the eruv, the symbolic enclosure made of string used to carry items on the Sabbath.

In 2006, news that the neighbourhood YMCA had switched to frosted windows to obscure Hasidic students' view of women in exercise wear spurred a debate over the reasonable accommodation of minorities which has never quite subsided.

Earlier this year, a Hasidic school near Outremont was raided by youth protection officials because of concern it was not following the provincial curriculum.

Louis Rousseau, a religious studies professor at University of Quebec in Montreal, said prior to the result it will be difficult to find a solution that satisfies everyone.

"A referendum is supposed to be the democratic solution, but it's clear not everyone will be happy with the result," he said.


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